mother & son, city street

(photo: Thomas Hawk, creative commons license)

By Richard Russo – This memorable book thoroughly and compassionately deconstructs the complex and intense relationship of a son and his troubled mother in “one of the most honest, moving American memoirs in years,” said Michael Schaub for NPR. Russo’s mother Jean suffered from “nerves” throughout her lifetime. She was a demanding, needy person, not unaware of her own flaws and shortcomings, and intermittently troubled by them. Russo, an only child, was her rock. She was also a pretty, lively woman, who went to extraordinary lengths to maintain the illusion she was living an independent life.

Only after Jean’s death did Russo learn enough about obsessive-compulsive disorder to fit the facts of her behavior to the characteristics of this syndrome, making a post hoc layman’s diagnosis. And only then did he come to the heartbreaking realization that his way of helping her might not have been the help she needed. She may have been a frustrating parent, but she just couldn’t help it.

The writing here is smooth as silk and contains great deal of humor. The well-rounded picture of the complex and loving mother-son relationship that Russo creates makes the reader more keenly feel the guilt Russo has suffered, despite his heroic efforts to respond to her plea, It’s you I need. (Meanwhile, in my opinion, Russo’s wife Barbara is a candidate for sainthood.)

He also gives a vivid picture of his home town of Gloversville, New York—a back-on-its-heels former leather-manufacturing town, whose tanneries poisoned workers and the watershed alike (he won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls, another post-industrial sad-sack of a town). Russo’s mother Jean couldn’t wait to get out of there, except when she couldn’t wait to get back. This cycle had a depressing regularity that continued for decades.

These are people well worth knowing and a relationship that’s understood far better than I understand what in the world went on with my own parents. Tiny bit jealous of Russo’s ability—the intellectual and emotional honesty and the depth of insight—to pull this one off so well.

*****The Orphan Master’s Son

Kim Jong Un, North Korea

Kim Jong Un, the Dear Leader (photo: petersnoopy, Creative Commons License)

By Adam Johnson – A prodigious creative imagination put together this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Few Americans have visited North Korea in recent decades; if they have, they’ve seen little other than what their minders are authorized to show them, and they’ve talked with no one outside their official itinerary. We cannot “see for ourselves” what living in such a massively regulated, brutal nation is like. In such a circumstance, it’s daunting to create a fully developed world, and it would be easy to create fictional characters who are two-dimensional, stereotypic. But Johnson has created such a world and peopled his book with true individuals who act believably, even when what they must do is unbelievably horrifying.

While the reader acquires a bone-chilling sense of North Korean life and how survival requires quick wits and artful deception, in no way does this novel feel like a political tract. What the reader comes to understand are the daily accommodations of action and speech and even thought that the system under Kim Jong Un, the Dear Leader, requires.

The first third of the book is about Jun Do (John Doe), the orphan master’s son who declares he is not an orphan. At various points, Jun Do has chances to escape, to defect to South Korea, to abandon ship in Japan, to hide out in the United States, but he doesn’t take them, in part because of the danger such an action would create for his companions and because (speaking of South Korea) “he was scared that if he saw it with his own eyes, his entire life would mean nothing. Stealing turnips from an old man who’d gone blind from hunger? That would have been for nothing. Sending another boy instead of himself to clean vats at the paint factory? For nothing.”

Yet the book is rich in both love and humor. Seeing Jun Do cope with the disconnect between reality and the government’s constant diet of lies can be simultaneously amusing and heart-breaking.

In the second part of the book, the narration alternates among several sources, and includes this story told by a young interrogator of political prisoners about the talk every father has with his son, “in which he brings the child to understand that there are ways we must act, things we must say, but inside, we are still us, we are family”:

father and son

(photo: pixshark)

 I was eight when my father had this talk with me . . . [After denouncing the boy in a terrifying way] . . [m]y father said, “See, my mouth said that, but my hand, my hand was holding yours. If . . . someday you must say something like that to me, I will know it’s not really you. That’s inside. Inside is where the son and the father will always be holding hands.”

Some chapters of this section are told via the official and ubiquitous government loudspeakers, which blare constantly in homes, factories, and public places. The extent to which the population is taken in by these jingoistic broadcasts is unclear, since cracks in the façade of total loyalty to the Dear Leader are dangerous.

Regarding the relentless suffering, one character says, “When the Dear Leader wanted you to lose more, he gave you more to lose.” He gave Jun Do love in the person of actress Sun Moon, and contrary to the Dear Leader’s expectation, love saved them both.

Despite all the paranoia, torture, starvation, slave labor camps, and dark and dripping prison cells, incredibly, I found this beautifully written novel uplifting; it engenders the feeling that the North Koreans will ultimately free themselves from their repressive government because the burden of believing in it will become too great.

Jennifer Egan’s Organic Writing

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Good Squad, Pulitzer Prize, writing, novel

Jennifer Egan (photo: upload.wikimedia,org – David Shankbone)

For a long time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan hadn’t consciously intended to pull together the stories that eventually formed A Visit from the Good Squad into a novel. A recent Glimmer Train interview with talks about the completely organic way of writing she employed in doing so.

The set of stories that form the book’s chapters focus on people who circle the lives of the main characters—Bennie Salazar, an aging punk rocker and recording executive, divorced, and trying to connect with his nine-year old son, and Sasha, a kleptomaniac who has worked for him. Thus, we learn about Bennie’s and Sasha’s past indirectly through these confederates.

Each of these individual stories is told in a unique, technically different way. It wasn’t a matter of just selecting a character and some different approach to telling their story, it was more the challenge of creating stories that actually required different manners of telling. As a result, for example, one is written as a slightly cheesy news story (“Forty-Minute Lunch: Kitty Jackson Opens Up About Love, Fame, and Nixon!”), and another, in the unsettling second-person, begins, “Your friends are pretending to be all kinds of stuff, and your special job is to call them on it.”

Janet Maslin in The New York Times called the book “uncategorizable.” It wasn’t until Egan had the idea of treating the book like a concept album that its ultimate form suggested itself, she says. She had no desire to write a set of linked short stories with “a similarity of mood and tone.” (An example is Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which won the 2009 Pulitzer for fiction.)

“I wanted them to sound like they were parts of different books,” Egan says. “Because I felt if I could do that and still have them fuse, that it would be a much more complicated, rich experience.” Sticking with the record-industry theme, she says, “You would never want to listen to an album where all the songs had the same mood and tone.” The group Chicago comes to mind.

Chapter 12, structured as a PowerPoint presentation titled “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” (you can read it here), plunges into previously uncharted literary territory. This unlikely format her interviewer calls “destabilizing,” as well as beautiful and haunting. The challenge in using it, says Egan, was that it is basically a discontinuous form being manipulated to create a continuous narrative. In another writer’s hands, such a deviation from the expected might seem gimmicky, but in Egan’s view that particular chapter demanded to be told in a fragmented way, which PowerPoint enabled. Something unlikely to happen again, she says.

While the books experimentation was praised by critics and has baffled readers, Egan believes that the only legitimate way to experiment in writing is to let the content dictate the form. And that’s where the author’s creativity has to come through. Otherwise it’s an intellectual process laid on top of a story, which from the discerning reader’s point of view, never works.

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